What causes people to make mistakes in language usage? Is it bad concentration or mislearned rules or ...?

This confuses me.

If the rules are to be reasonable, shouldn't people "know" intuitively how to apply them?

If they are not reasonable, then should people be expected to deviate from them, since they don't appear reasonable?

So what causes people to do "deviations" in grammar?

  • 2
    You seem to think that speakers of a language start with rules then articulate sentences, sometimes incorrectly through a misapprehension of the rules. Not so, any 'rules' of grammar are attempts by linguists (and others) to codify sentences uttered by (native) speakers of a language. Nov 16 at 16:00
  • @HighPerformanceMark Well that's what people are assumed, when they're expected to follow language rules? So i.e. it seems like "to use a language, means to abide to its rules". Which I personally though would question, because I'm not sure if natural language is entirely formalizable. I find that there's plenty of space to not follow rules and still be comprehensible. And perhaps this is the reason they break the rules ...?
    – mavavilj
    Nov 16 at 16:01
  • 1
    The rules for long division are eminently reasonable, but that doesn't mean most people just intuitively "know" how to do long division. You still need to learn the rules and apply them properly. We should not expect anyone doing long division to deviate from those rules regardless of how they feel about said rules - if they deviate and push numbers around according to their own rule set, they're not doing long division anymore. It's like asking if a poker player should be expected to deviate from the rules of poker - if they do, they're not actually playing poker anymore. Nov 16 at 16:04
  • @NuclearHoagie An analogy to formal language doesn't really work. You break the rules of maths, the result doesn't work out. You break the rules of natural language, it's possible that the readers still understand and they might not even pay attention to the mistakes.
    – mavavilj
    Nov 16 at 16:06
  • 1
    Ah, it's readers you're concerned with. Mistakes in reading and writing are unavoidable, especially in English, because the writing system is very poor. There are reasons for speech errors, but writing "errors" are strictly a matter of pleasing teachers and have no real value for language learners. Native speakers, when they write effectively, write like they would speak, not like the "correct" grammar books say.
    – jlawler
    Nov 16 at 20:43

There are two kinds of rules in language: cognitive rules, and social rules. Social rules include statements like that "ain't" is not a word, or prepositions are things that you shouldn't end sentences with; there are also social rules about "will" and "shall". People don't generally know these rules except if they have historically researched them, or if (in rare instances) they are taught those rules in school. Basically, those rules are not reasonable, and people ignore them.

The cognitive rules are different: they are what we actually know when we say "I know that language". Sometimes there are apparent mistakes that are not actually mistakes, they are different sets of rules. For example, when I first heard someone say "We might should go", I thought it was a mistake, but it turns out it's a dialect feature. My judgment that that was a mistake was similar to the aforementioned social rules.

There is an intermediate kind of mistake, which arises when a person's grammar changes under some form of social pressure. I in fact have been caught using the "needs washed" construction more than once, even though I never heard it before grad school (and have been subjected to it frequently, ever sense). This may have initially been a "mistake", but now I think it's simply a new construction.

Actual mistakes do exist. They can be "encouraged" by taxing the speaker in various ways, so that they lose track of what they were saying and end up completing a sentence in a way that doesn't make sense, because they sort of forgot how they started the sentence. Harassment, intoxicants and fatigue are ways to increase the chances of a mistake.

  • I have read the last paragraph three times and have yet still to make sense of it. could somebody explain? Nov 16 at 17:57
  • 3
    Is "in rare instances" ironic? Those are pretty much the only rules that are taught in schools.
    – TKR
    Nov 16 at 19:56
  • 1
    The last paragraph is partly a restatement of Zwicky's Law, which states that the more irrelevant garbage you put in an ungrammatical sentence, the better it sounds; largely through fatiguing the parsing routines and overflowing memory.
    – jlawler
    Nov 16 at 20:50
  • In rare instances, rules are taught in school.
    – user6726
    Nov 17 at 2:50
  • 1
    You can experimentally cause people to make grammatical errors by giving them substances that reduces their focus. Stemberger has written about experimental induction of errors.
    – user6726
    Nov 17 at 2:54

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